Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

Latest "Neuroscience" Posts

Rain. All day. Grey and dreary.

Yay! I love a rainy day. Why would anyone find a damp, overcast day appealing? Here’s what I observe:

On a rainy day, the to-do list is shorter because some things can’t be done or are less convenient in the rain. I focus my attention more on a rainy day.

A rainy day feels refreshing as if the world is clean and less cluttered.

A rainy day has a slower pace. I’m more likely to read a book, take a nap, and think new thoughts.

So how do I transfer these observations from a rainy day to a regular work day?

Focus. Shorten the to-do list and focus. Not everything has to be done today or done by me. Let’s all take a moment and remove a few things from the list. We are left with less to do and more room to get them done. Send the other tasks to someone else or delete them entirely. Admit it, we all have something on the list that’s been there for ages. It can’t be THAT important if it’s still waiting to be done.

Declutter. Every item—pen, note pad, stack of papers, random business cards, another stack of papers, a book, an iPad—adds clutter to your world and to your mind. The brain uses small bits of energy to scan, process and label as irrelevant each of those items. That activity drains your brain power that you could use for productive tasks. Take a moment and organize the desk and the work space around you. Declutter and observe that your productivity increases.

Slow down. Now that you are more  focused and decluttered, you can slow the pace and do higher quality work – work that is thoughtful, considered and insightful. Most of us live in a frantic world. Those few who offer insight – insight that required astute observation – stand out. Who has time to think or think differently? You do. That’s who. But only with focus, less clutter and a slower pace. It’s during the slowness that the brain makes new, innovative connections. It’s where we find an aha-moment.

I confess that it’s hard for me to focus, declutter, and slow down. In the last few years, I trained myself to be at a frenetic pace. I’m not the only one. You know who you are! But we can retrain ourselves. I’ll give it a try if you will.

Imagine the rain. Focus on one or two things; remove everything else from sight, take a breath, settle your brain….and let your mind wander slowly. Allow the insight to come. It will be worth it.

Copyright: giedriusok / 123RF Stock Photo

“You’re doing what?” The question came from my girlfriends during our morning run. I had explained my plan to attend a weekend meditation retreat. It wasn’t the meditation retreat they reacted to. It was the plan: Friday night concert (we already had tickets); Saturday morning drive five hours to the retreat (it started at 9am); meditate all day; Sunday fly across country for a business meeting. All this so I could relax.

“No. You will not do that.” One of the girls insisted. The remarkable thing is that it took their perspective to convince me that, once again, I was over-doing it. The idea was good – to slow down – but I didn’t see the big picture. Their reaction caused me to pause and remember what I already knew about energy balance but had shoved aside.

Clearly, knowing and doing are not the same things. Here is my refresher course:

1. Know your energy profile. We all have it–the time of day when we’re at our best. For many people, it’s in the morning. But not for everyone. I’m a morning person and I do my best work in the morning…in the quiet. My friend writes and creates at night long after I’m snoozing. And don’t even call her before 11am. When are you at your peak performance? What time of day does your energy peak…morning, afternoon, evening?

 2. Recognize your energy drains and fillers. Each day starts with some amount of energy in your tank. Throughout the day you constantly fill up or drain away that energy. Energy fillers make you overflow with vim, vigor and vitality. Energy drains are activities, people or situations that sap your strength. Perhaps you procrastinate and mutter, “This just takes all my energy.” And you’re right! What activities fill or drain your energy?

As you read the following list, take note of subtle shifts in how you feel:

• Reading a book
• Listening to music
• Going dancing
• Hosting a party
• Attending a large networking event
• Going for a run
• Practicing yoga
• Meeting friends at a lively bar for drinks
• Meeting your best friend at a quiet restaurant
• Participating in a large conference
• Speaking before a group
• Facilitating a small group discussion
• Brainstorming new ideas with co-workers
• Participating in a heated debate

I noticed my breath slows with the energy fillers and my brain emits a tiny “yikes!” with the energy drains. What about you? Can you tell the difference?

 3. Coordinate your energy and your day. Big-ticket activities are best planned when your energy level is topped off. Write the report, hold budget negotiations, and do strategic planning when your energy is high. Research shows that decisions that need high moral considerations are strongest in the morning. And you certainly don’t want to have that high-emotion talk with your problem employee when your energy level is low (the same is true for having The Talk with your partner). Bad idea. Very bad idea. Plan routine administrative, minimal thinking tasks when your energy will be lower.

4. Balance the Big Picture. Even when you are adept at balancing daily energy, there is the week, month and year to consider. This is where I failed. I’ve been told that I put ten pounds in a five-pound bag.  Scan your monthly calendar. Is there time for the fun energy fillers? Or does work follow you home inside your computer or inside your head? Advances in neuroscience allow scientists to see that your brain keeps working on a problem when you are at the park, in a museum, listening to music, or baking cookies for the school fund-raiser. In fact, this down time is some of the most creative for your brain. Take a few pounds out of the bag to make time for the energy fillers across the week, month and year.

It’s easy to complain about having too much to do. It’s harder to commit to change. We wear our busy-ness as a badge of honor as though it is an indicator of value. It’s not. Perhaps something won’t be accomplished exactly when I want or perhaps I must make hard choices about the number of clients I can support. Whatever it is, I commit to managing my time with more balance.

Now it’s your turn. Be aware of your energy profile and your energy drains and fillers; balance each day, week, month and year. Make the commitment to always keep energy in your tank. Good luck! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to take five pounds out of my bag.

planningIt happened for the second time. I arrived to speak at the conference workshop and realized that I left the mail-back cards and envelopes at home…again. (Yes, I have a packing checklist; yes, I used the checklist; yes, I still overlooked it.) That feeling of panic hits. The mail-back cards are an added feature for attendees. They write their key points on the card, seal it in an envelope, self-address it and I mail it to them 30-days later as a reminder. In this case, the cards were part of the agreement with the client; hence, panic.

In my study of neuroscience, I’ve come to understand that an alarmed brain can derail, well, almost anything.  When we get alarmed, even at a low level, it impairs the thoughtful part of the brain just when you need it most. I learned (the hard way) the importance of a) staying calm and b) finding a work-around, believing that there’s bound to be a way to solve the problem.

Stay calm. My mind raced, “Oh no! I’ll have to drive two hours back home to get the mail-back cards. I need that time to prepare, but the cards are part of the contracted program. I NEED those cards! What will I do?” Have you ever had your mind run away with you shouting, “Oh no! What will I do?” It’s natural. The brain perceives a threat (in this case I perceived impending failure) and it sends off alarms. Your skill is to recognize the feeling of alarm for what it is: your brain feeling threatened. The brain is super-sensitive to threats so it isn’t the best at discerning real from fake threats. You must slow down enough to intervene, take some deep breaths, and not give in to the “Oh no!”

Work-arounds. My friend is a retired association executive director who ran, over the course of a 30-year career, hundreds of conferences and trade shows. There’s always a glitch – always. He taught me that there is also always a work-around. He’s right (and I put that in writing). You just have to keep your head in the game (see Stay Calm) and be a bit creative. Staying calm is essential but not enough.  You must believe that there’s another way and look for it…really look for it.  In the mail-back card example, after I calmed down and realized that the cards really weren’t here, the search for a work-around began.  There was bound to be a business office with a printer and paper cutter. There was and the young man staffing it was very helpful. New cards were printed (but without the photo on the back) but still no envelopes.  The young man suggested the CVS – right-o! They had envelopes but not the correct size. This is where done is better than perfect. I got the envelopes, explained the story to the participants and instructed them to exercise mental flexibility and fit the card into the envelop any way they could!  And they did.

As it turned out, there was a glitch at the session and there was no projector or screen for my presentation, and it’s a highly visual program. Ok…stay calm; find the work-around. Two flip charts, colored markers and creative sketching later, we did the program without any AV. And, the attendees learned both the content and the power of work-arounds.

The next time something doesn’t go right, remember: Stay calm. Find the work-around. It’s there; it just takes a calm head to find it.

 

 

Tired brain

I had a plan. On the first leg of the flight to Reno, I would work on a new webinar series and on the second leg of the flight, after connecting in Vegas, I would work on materials for a client.  I worked steadily during the first flight until the medical emergency happened that I wrote about last week. By the time we landed, I was flustered and upset, and I knew it. After deplaning, I called my sister and a friend to help me calm down. Even so, some residual stress lingered.  But, I was calm enough that I decided to get the rental car and drive to my Reno hotel.

Walking through the baggage claim area I noticed signs for Mariah Carey, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s tour, and Penn and Teller. “Wow,” I thought, “I didn’t realize that Reno had such big acts.” I boarded the rental car shuttle and again thought, “I’m surprised that Reno has a rental car shuttle. I expected it to be a small airport with rental cars at the terminal.” On the bus, I reset my watch and again thought, “Hmmm. 9:30am. I thought I arrived in Reno later than that.” As I pondered the work I completed on the flight I thought, “I expected to get more done.  I didn’t start the client work that I planned for the second leg of the flight.”  The SECOND LEG of the flight! I only took one flight.  Where am I? Looking out the bus window I saw the skyline of the city: tall buildings, desert landscape and the Eiffel Tower and an Egyptian Pyramid. Vegas. I was on the rental car shuttle in Vegas…not Reno.

My decision-making fell victim to a brain compromised by stress and the power of confirmation bias.  “Fine, Shelley,” you think, “But what does that have to do with work?” Everything.  Each workplace squabble, each passionate disagreement, or each set of hurt feelings creates stress and compromises the brain. Stress makes it more likely that you’ll see and hear what you want to see and hear – which is confirmation bias. I forced everything in the Vegas airport to conform to my belief that I was in Reno.

How can you ensure that you don’t make a bad decision under stress?

  1. Know when you are stressed. You probably know when you’re under considerable stress.  You may not fully appreciate smaller instances of stress. When your boss gives credit for your work to someone else; when you have another tense conversation with THAT person in the office; when your big project is due but everything goes wrong with the deliverables. Each of these and many more generate stress.  Learn to your body feels when under stress – tightness in the chest, constricted breathing, sweaty palms. Pay attention to whatever it is for you.
  2. Take steps to reduce your stress. Do you know what reduces your stress? In my situation, I needed to talk to someone(s) who would understand and care about me while I calmed down. What can you do?  Take a walk around the block, take a coffee break, share with a friend, call your kids, write about your feelings.  Whatever it is, do it. If you don’t know what calms you, figure it out or try different approaches until you have a workable strategy.
  3. Either postpone big decisions or get an objective observer to assist. Your stress-reduction approach will help but there may be lingering impacts that color your brain’s functioning. Under stress, the brain is more likely to force-fit everything into its existing mental models. For big decisions, it’s best to postpone the decision until the next day when your brain has settled and you have perspective about the situation. If that’s not possible, seek out input from others with differing points of view to validate your decision.

Luckily, I managed to return to the airport and catch my flight to Reno (more on that in the next newsletter). For you, don’t hope for luck. Learn to recognize your stress level and take steps to moderate its impact.

lightwise / 123RF Stock Photo

tea kettleThere it is – a tea kettle. Shiny and copper.  It sits quietly until the heat is on. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it erupts, “Eeeeeeeeee!”

There you are. Sitting quietly at home or at work doing what you’re doing.  Something happens – a cross word, a sideways glance, an awkward situation – and you erupt. It may not be a loud “Eeeeeee” (Or maybe it is. I won’t judge.), but you over-react and your reaction doesn’t serve you or the situation. What can you learn from the tea kettle that will reframe an over-reaction to a considered response?  Three things:

The Fire – Your Triggers

The tea kettle is quiet and calm until an external event –in this case, a fire – adds energy to its system.  That energy ignites changes inside the tea kettle.  Similarly, you exist calmly in your world as a manager, leader, mom or employee until an external stimulus trips your trigger, or punches your hot buttons. Like the tea kettle, that event adds energy to your system and starts reactions inside your nervous system.  To prevent an over-reaction you must know what lights your fire and trips your triggers.  To identify triggers, start with identifying situations where you over-react.  For most people, an over-reaction causes a fight, flight, freeze or appease response. A fight reaction incites you to confront; flight draws you inside and away; freeze stops you in your tracks; and appease, well, don’t we all just want to get along? Whatever your reaction, it is out of scale for the situation. Someone makes a glancing comment; you hear it as a jab; triggering you to withdraw from the discussion. Someone explains the rationale behind a decision; you hear a threat to your values; and you verbally lash out. Whatever it is – a situation, a comment, or a person – it pays to recognize your triggers. Think back to times when you over-reacted.  What happened? What started the fire under your tea kettle?

The Water – Your Sensations

As the fire adds energy to the tea kettle, changes begin to happen. The tea kettle grows warm, the water inside agitates and rumbles. Both are indicators that something is happening inside that precedes the eruption.  You, too, have indicators, sensations in your body, that are early warning signs that a triggered reaction is on its way. The trigger ignites your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) sending alarms through your body.  Your body reacts first; your brain, well, it’s the last to know. With attentive awareness, you can learn to recognize the signs that your nervous system, like the water in the tea kettle, is registering an upset.  Perhaps you get a knot in your stomach, or your breathing becomes shallow, or your jaw clenches, or palms sweat.  We have this language:  Hot under the collar, steam coming out the ears, chills running up your spine, blood boiling. The skill is to recognize these initial the bodily sensations. When you consider your over-reactions, see if you can recall your feelings in that moment.  What sensations occurred first and where did they surface – gut, hands, chest? The next time you are hit with a triggering event, notice the sensation. If you can, you have a chance to intercept the over-reaction before it happens.

The Whistle – Your Response

Left on the heat, the tea kettle sends out its piercing “eeeeeee”.  Without intervention, you erupt with an over-reaction that doesn’t help you or anyone else. How do you give yourself other options that are more considered?

To stop the tea kettle’s whistle remove it from the heat or turn the heat down. You have the same two options. In some cases you may be able to remove yourself from the situation. Can you stop the meeting and reconvene tomorrow? Or take a break for a few minutes? Any type of complete break will take you off the heat while your nervous system calms and your brain catches up to the action.  If the situation doesn’t allow you to stop, there are techniques that turn down the heat and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and repose).

  • Relax your jaw and the area around your eyes;
  • Deeply and slowly exhale;
  • Breathe consciously from your belly;
  • Count to ten…slowly;
  • Scan your body and consciously relax tense areas;
  • Ground yourself to the floor, sit up straight and imagine tension draining away.

Each of these techniques can be used without calling attention to yourself.  They help to calm the disruption in your body and gives you a gap in which to bring your awareness to the situation.  In that slight gap, you recognize the trigger, notice the over-reaction building, and realize that you have the opportunity to choose a different response.  Now, reframe the over-reaction into a considered response.

It takes practice, but don’t worry, there are plenty of opportunities for practice! Learn the three tips from a tea kettle: know your triggers, watch for body sensations and manage your responses.  It’s your choice.

control

Is there someone you work with who could use a little motivation?  Could you use a little motivation? You can’t motivate someone else if you can’t motivate yourself and, frankly, we could all use a little motivation sometime. Too often we think of motivation as money or a promotion but intrinsic motivation comes from inside and is powerful.  How can you leverage findings about brain function to connect with intrinsic motivation? There are five ways to aid your brain or other’s brains to feel motivated by feeling rewarded.

Today, let’s look at control (we’ll examine other approaches in upcoming posts). The brain likes to feel in control so take advantage of it. There are two ways to use control in your favor.

You are in control of more than you think you are. I was excited to be in a new job and looked forward to contributing to the organization.  But I soon discovered that my new boss was a control freak (to be fair, so am I) and my motivation suffered. After venting every evening to my husband and lamenting that I’d taken the job, he encouraged me to look for areas where I could exert some control. And I found that he didn’t care much about our conference planning process so that’s where I jumped in.  We reworked the process, implemented a new approach and I felt motivated because I now had an area of control. Do you suffer from a boss who won’t share control? If so, you need to dig deeper. Where can you exert a bit of control? Look for areas where your boss has little interest and jump in.  Taking control is likely to have a motivating impact.

You can give up control of more than you think you can. You may be stifling motivation by being overly controlling. Give others a sense of control to activate reward feelings. If you’re feeling queasy about releasing control, don’t worry. You don’t have to give away full control. You might release control of the process but retain control over the final product. Can you provide a range of options from which they can pick? You could ask for input on a big decision which makes the brain feel like it at least has a say.   You might break a project into parts and give over control of the less risky elements.  For a client who is unconvinced of the merits of a project, you could ask them to set a trial period to define the parameters for moving forward, or define when to pull the plug. It puts them in control of part of the work. Where can you hold on less tightly? You can give up control of more than you think you can.

Whether it’s you who needs more motivation or someone on your team, push yourself to find ways to take or release control. The brain will be happy you did.